Joshua Bell: The Man With the Violin

February 12, 2017, 12:01 AM · Who could have predicted that Joshua Bell's 43-minute busking experiment in a D.C. Metro station would still be inspiring stories more than 10 years later?

And yet it is -- beyond the 2007 Pulitzer Prize-winning story in the Washington Post, a children's book in 2013 and a host of Internet-traded retellings of the incident, today the story will be told from yet another angle, in a National Symphony Orchestra Family Concert at The Kennedy Center that features none other than Joshua Bell himself.

Man with the Violin
Image by Dusan Petricic from The Man with the Violin.

Why does this story continue to tug at our collective imagination?

I spoke last week to Anne Dudley, the Oscar- and Grammy-winning composer who wrote the music for the family concert.

"This piece came about because of this celebrated incident.... Joshua busked in the Washington Metro, and he played for about an hour during morning rush hour. Thousands of people went by, and almost nobody stopped," Dudley said. "And at the end of an hour, I think he'd earned $32."

"But one of the things he noticed was that the people who wanted to stop were children, mostly," she said. "But their parents were very keen on rushing them along."

The concert is a multi-media event based on The Man with the Violin, the children's book by Kathy Stinton. Besides Joshua Bell and the National Symphony, it features narration by NPR's Michele Norris; and three screens with images by the book's illustrator Dusan Petricic, animated by Montreal production studio NORMAL.

Dudley's music "is like film music, it's telling the story," she said. "It starts off all hustle and bustle, with people in the rush hour, moving to and fro very quickly. Then the child hears the violin, the violin comes in solo and plays a short, sort of cadenza-y piece." The child is completely transported by the violin music and by Joshua and wants to stop. But everyone else is going about their daily business, and the child's mother drags him down to the metro, where gets on the train and goes to school. But "all the time he's at school, the music is playing in his head. So the themes that we've already heard will come back."

"There's a little sort of moral of the story," Dudley said. "At the end, after the day is over, the child goes home with his mother. They're in their apartment, it's very dull and rainy outside, and she's got the radio on." At that point, the music comes back on the radio -- the same music the child had heard in the morning. The announcer says, "Today thousands of people had the opportunity to hear one of the finest musicians in the world playing..."

At that point, the child admonishes the mother, "We should have stopped, we should have listened, we should have listened together..."

The arc of the story and main narration lines are from the book, "a really lovely book. The illustrations are beautiful, it's very artistic. If you were reading the book with children, there would be loads of things they would point out in the illustrations."

"The gentle moral that comes from the story is: listening to things together, with children, is a very special thing," Dudley said. Oftentimes, "children are hearing the pieces of music that we're familiar with -- for the first time. I remember the first time I heard 'Rhapsody in Blue,' and 'Rite of Spring' -- these wonderful pieces. That moment can never be recaptured. To be able to share it with a child is really quite magical."

The concert will be repeated in December with Canada’s National Arts Centre Orchestra, which co-commissioned the work.

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  • Replies

    February 12, 2017 at 09:09 PM · Could it be possible that one reason why the story continues to tug at our imaginations is because the protagonist happens to be good-looking?

    February 13, 2017 at 01:34 PM · Yes! And I was enchanted by the 11-year-old Joshua seen on YouTube, and his resemblance to my grandson, also learning violin. HOWEVER, when I'm listening to a concerto on the radio, and am amazed by the beauty and unique quality of every note.....and at the end hear that it was performed by Joshua Bell...I know once again that his mastery and poetry reigns, in spite of his good looks.

    February 13, 2017 at 05:34 PM · Paul, I really don't think so. The little kid doesn't want to stop to look at Josh because he's good looking, after all!

    Why has it really endured? Honestly I find it to be a complicated story. Had I been the mother, struggling to get my little kid to school (and I was the right age for that, at the time it happened), even as a great appreciator of violin music, I would have been 100 percent guilty of hurrying along. I'd probably have said something like, "Wow, the Chaconne, unusual! That's Bach, let's listen to that at home I think I have a recording. Let's go," and scurried my kid along. Had I looked up and seen that it was Josh Bell (unlikely in the situation of rushing to school and work to be very honest), I may have said, "Holy cow, it's Josh Bell! Okay we can look for 30 seconds but then we must go or you'll be tardy and I'll be late for work!" And then maybe I'd explain to my child, "Shoot, I have no change, this has to be for your lunch. But it's nice to give buskers money if you possibly can, honey, that is why his case is open. Okay, time to go!"

    But if his presence in the subway gave me an opening to later go home and spend some time listening to and explaining violin music, I'd have been quite happy, yes. And if my kid suddenly got curious and wanted to go see Joshua Bell in concert, wonderful! But like many have noted, the timing was just too difficult for people to stop and "smell the roses"!

    I think Joshua was a sport to do the experiment, and it's turned into a wonderful -- if strange -- opportunity to reach out. And maybe another moral of the story is that, as artists, sometimes we can shake people out of their little bubbles, even in the most unlikely of situations. He may not have garnered a lot of direct attention -- or money -- on that particular day, but the whole thing pried open some kind of crack, a craving that people have to stop and "smell the roses," to see something live, to be present in the real world. Even if our lives make it VERY difficult, even if it was 100 percent unreasonable to expect people on their way to work to be able to stop and see a lovely performance, we DO crave that. We wish we could.

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